Orca Watch 2021 – how you can have a whale of a time at home

An Orca photographed off the coast at Foula, Shetland. Photograph: John Irvine

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For the last nine years, the end of May has seen groups of volunteers and tourists travel to north east Scotland for the chance to glimpse one of Britain’s most charismatic and exciting species – the orca.

Organised by Sea Watch Foundation, the annual Orca Watch event usually takes place over 10 days across Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland, with everyone welcome to join in the land-watches, boat trips, talks, and camaraderie. After the cancellation of last year’s event due to Covid-19, this year Orca Watch is back…but with a difference!

Orca Watch Online, which begins on Saturday, May 29 and runs until June 6, will bring the excitement of watching orcas in the UK to the comfort of your living room. The week-long programme of virtual events, talks, and daily sighting roundups will celebrate Orca Watch week 2021, while keeping the local community, wildlife enthusiasts, and Sea Watch staff safe.

This year, the project is supported by NatureScot through the PlungeIn! The Coasts and Waters Community Fund.

Orca Watch began in 2012 – a collaboration between Sea Watch Foundation and their regional coordinator Colin Bird – following the announcement that green energy underwater turbines were potentially being installed in the Pentland Firth. The decision was made to launch the seasonal event to better understand how cetaceans use the area, and the impact that these installations might have on them. The north-east coast of Scotland is a haven for marine mammal and bird life, with orcas, minke and humpback whales, white-beaked, Atlantic white-sided and Risso’s dolphins, and harbour porpoise all possible to spot from shore.

Now in its 10th year, Orca Watch still keeps this aim at the forefront of the week’s activities. However, rather than welcoming numbers of people to participate directly in land and boat-surveying, this year will instead see a small, dedicated group of locally-based volunteers collecting data on the ground in Caithness, Shetland, and Orkney, operating strictly within Covid guidelines.

The week kicks off with an online evening of orca-themed talks on Saturday May 29, lead by experts on orcas and other marine mammals. There will also be an exciting prize draw. This is a paid-for event.

From Monday May 31, the free evening Orca Watch Live session will keep everyone watching from home in-the-loop, with a round-up of each day’s sightings and happenings with help from the volunteers on the ground. Two specials will also run during the week, treating participants to presentations with the group of observers and citizen scientists behind the dedicated Scottish killer whale ID catalogue, as well as from scientists researching the predation of seals by orca in the UK. These sessions are all free to attend, but participants will need to register through Eventbrite by searching ‘Orca Watch Live’.

The week will finish with a closing session on Sunday June 6, looking back on the event and looking ahead to Orca Watch 2022. All are welcome to join online for a deep dive into the wonders of orcas around the UK.

Sea Watch Foundation is a national marine charity that works to improve the conservation of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in British and Irish waters. With a national database of over 250,000 sightings covering the period 1960-present, Sea Watch Foundation has one of the largest and longest-running sightings programmes in the world, contributing to UK marine policy, conservation, and research.

The charity encourages volunteers, the public, and scientists to undertake land and boat watches to contribute sightings and effort data to this database. Whilst Orca Watch 2021 is an online event, sightings recorded around the UK, whether casual or from planned watches (operating within Covid social guidelines), are always welcomed and can be submitted using the online sightings form at www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/sightingsform

In organising the annual Orca Watch event, Sea Watch works in collaboration with the Mull based Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust (HWDT), Orkney Marine Mammal Research Initiative (OMMRI), High Life Highland Countryside Rangers, The Cabin at John O’Groats, NatureScot, Shetland Wildlife, John O’Groats Development Trust, Dunnet and Canisbay Community Council, and NatureScot’s community funds.

More details on Orca Watch 2021 can be found here: www.facebook.com/orcawatchers